Friday, October 30, 2015

Speaking Truth to Power is no Guarantee that Power will Comprehend

This past Tuesday James Gleick put up a fascinating post on the NYR Daily blog. His title was "What Libraries Can (Still) Do;" and it amounted to a valuable analysis of how the resource of a public library could be qualitatively different from that of a computer connected to the Internet, emphasizing the positive value of that difference. He then signed off with a zinger of a punch line:
The masters of Internet commerce—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple—sometimes talk as though they’re building a new society, where knowledge is light-speed and fungible, but a marketplace is not a society.
This allowed him to hit squarely on the head a nail in desperate need of being hit. Unfortunately, that desperation has a lot to do with the prevailing ignorance among those "masters of Internet commerce." We have known for some time that the movers and shakers in the world of the Internet have been blithely ignorant of the social world. Many of them might even attribute their success to that ignorance. The bottom line is that they are so fixated on the marketplace that they believe that the very concept of society is outmoded, if not downright counterproductive. Thus, whenever social disruption rears its head, whether it involves death threats, identity theft, or just plain harassment, the "masters of Internet commerce" turn a blind eye and hold to their faith that the workings of the marketplace will take care of everything. Unfortunately, the result goes beyond the disappearance of society (and, along with it, any viable sense of the concept of governance) from the Internet. Because the Internet is so ubiquitous, society no longer signifies in the world at large except among terrorist groups for whom cultures that have neglected both society and governance can now be recognized as easy targets.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Are Things Looking Up for Bing?

I had mixed feeling after reading Mary Jo Foley's "Bing finally shows a profit" story on CNET this morning. The bottom line appears to be that Bing is finally attracting more eyeballs because other Microsoft software is pushing them there. There is nothing unfair about this practice; but it will not necessarily turn "Bing" into a verb of its own the way "Google" currently is.

Meanwhile, I was more than a little amused by the graphic attached to this article. It suggests that the Bing home page has a search window superimposed on a photograph of a meditation labyrinth (perhaps the labyrinth located here in San Francisco in the sanctuary of Grace Cathedral). The thing about any labyrinth is that going through it almost always takes a lot of time, and the duration can be even longer due to the risk of getting lost. Is that the sort of visual metaphor you want for a search engine?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Does "Nimbler" Mean "Better?"

One gets the impression that Jack Dorsey returned to the Chief Executive Officer position at Twitter because someone (probably the heavy-duty investors acting as a collective) felt that the company needed a good hatchet man. In this case the hatchet will lop off 336 jobs, constituting 8% of the workforce. Given that unemployment is still a major problem, that amounts to a mighty hatchet.

One sentence from Dorsey's statement about the layoffs stuck in my craw:
We feel strongly that Engineering will move much faster with a smaller and nimbler team, while remaining the biggest percentage of our workforce.
This is very much the newspeak of the world that the Internet has made. My guess that all of us are now encountering software coming from "a smaller and nimbler team." What we notice most is that it is more error-prone. It is the latest generation of the old Microsoft motto: "Get it out as soon as possible and fix it later." It is also the latest example of what happens when pleasing the shareholders is more important than pleasing the customers.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Do You Judge a Man by his Credentials?

Like many, I have taken a rather jaundiced view of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The fact that just about everything discussed in the preparation of this plan was performed in absolute secrecy (strict enough to avoid penetration by WikiLeaks) was enough to give me pause as a first impression. This seemed like another one of those gatherings inspired by organizations such as the World Economic Forum, whose motto ought to be, "Making the rich and mighty richer and mightier." Thus, when I got a hyperlink to the article "Why Support the TPP?" on the Facts & Arts Web site (which I read primarily for the arts), I decided to click with curiosity heavily seasoned with skepticism.

I did not take long for skepticism to come down like John Henry's hammer. The author is Jeffrey Frankel. His credentials are listed as "Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard University." Say what? This says as much about Harvard as it does about Frankel. I suppose it would be really cool (at least to the rich and mighty) to have a resume that describes you as having a degree from Harvard in "Capital Formation and Growth." The fact that Harvard has become so specialized is just as disturbing as its efforts to displace the University of Chicago as the recognized haven for the "paid brains" of the rich. Time to get a home in that rock.

Friday, October 9, 2015

What Would Will Rogers Say?

My favorite Will Rogers quote would have to be the following:
I do not support any organized political party. I am a Democrat.
These days it seems as if the Republicans are setting the bar for a "disorganized political party" and seem to just keep raising it. Could it be that the Internet has turned us into a culture that prefers anarchy to governance, even if the side-effects of anarchy include the laundry list of social abuses that now take place regularly on pages of the World Wide Web? Once upon a time the "futurists" were predicting that, by giving every individual his or her own voice, we would finally achieve a "true" democracy. Ironically, those futurists seemed blithely ignorant on how Athenian democracy was first conceived and how it actually worked. Rather than democracy, we have abundant opportunities for the unbridled execution of power, leading to the detriment of many for the sake of those who can shout louder than anyone else. At least the Democrats can take comfort that Will Rogers no longer can make fun of them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Robocalls are Getting Smarter!

I just got call from which it was obvious that the caller was reading from a prepared script. When I asked, "Are you a human being?," the reply was:
I am a human being, but I am only allowed to respond to specific questions.
I replied:
Does that mean that "Am I interrupting anything?" is not part of your script?
That was followed by dead silence. Speech recognition is clearly getting better, but it is still pretty easy to tell the difference between technology and a human being. Make a note of that, Alan Turing!